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Original Issue


A bureaucratic list of animals doomed to disappear makes compelling reading

There have been many expensive books published for sportsmen in the last few months, but none of them can offer more compelling reading than the mimeographed pages of a cardboard-bound volume that costs only $2.50. Ominously titled Rare and Endangered Fish and Wildlife of the United States, it is put out by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, and can be had by writing to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. It lists, with some fascinating editorial comment, the 51 mammals, 161 birds, 27 reptiles and amphibians and 87 fish whose survival is now a matter of serious scientific concern. The book makes sad but fascinating reading and is as difficult to lay aside as a bag of peanuts.

This grim report breaks the 326 imperiled species down into four classifications. The first or "endangered species" is the group most seriously threatened. A species belonging to this group is defined as "one whose prospects of survival and reproduction are in immediate jeopardy."

A number of species whose likelihood of extinction has been well publicized—the whooping crane, California condor, Eskimo curlew and southern bald eagle—are discussed here, but so are many more obscure creatures whose fight for life usually goes unnoticed—the Indiana bat, for instance, which mostly winters in four caves. The roosts of these bats have been disturbed by spelunkers, their colonies have been raided for laboratory specimens and vandals have decimated them. Not long ago a couple of boys killed about 10,000 Indiana bats in one brief spree in Carter Cave, Kentucky.

Even the grizzly bear is in peril. Known to scientists by the marvelous name of Ursus horribilis, the grizzly formerly ranged all over the West. They are still relatively plentiful in Alaska, but those in the lower 48 states number only 850, and this dwindling population is confined to remote parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Development of the countryside and trapping for bounty have all but done in the timber wolf, and the red wolf is in dire circumstances, because it is unable to compete with the coyote, which is aggressively extending its range.

Introduced to the islands by interfering mankind, the mongoose is eating many of Hawaii's birds: the dark-rumped petrel, Newell's Manx shearwater, the nene, or Hawaiian, goose, the common gallinule. Their plight sometimes inspires poignantly poetic notes, even in the curt bureaucratese. This, for example, on the Hawaiian crested honeycreeper: "Last seen by Dr. L. Richards, Dec., 1950. In April, 1963, W. M. Ord heard a bird calling in the fog at 5,500 feet on Haleakala which was almost certainly this species. Feeds on nectar of flowers and caterpillars."

Closer to home, the latest count found only 10 Florida Everglades kites; they do not have enough snails to eat because of decreasing marsh. The San Francisco garter snake is endangered by housing developments, and the Texas blind salamander has all but been done in by pet collectors, the capping of wells and drainage of underground water.

Among the many fish which may be on their way out is the Suwannee bass, one of the black basses, which looks like a cross between the spotted bass and the large-mouth. Classified as "rare," it thrives only in certain parts of northern Florida—the Ichtucknee Springs and adjacent stretches of water. "Spraying of herbicides or insecticides," warns the government's report, "might easily eliminate a species so restricted geographically."

And there are lurking dangers beyond those introduced by man. There is, for instance, a kind of fishy miscegenation. Pity the Clear Creek Gambusia (Gambusia heterochir), found only in "headwaters of Clear Creek, 10.4 mi. west of Menard, Menard County, Texas." Not only is this fish endangered by a dam, it is also threatened "by possible genetic swamping with G. affinis, with which it hybridizes."

The historic decline of the Atlantic salmon is also documented. Once an important sport and commercial fish all along the New England coast, it is now restricted to eight coastal streams in Maine. Between 1958 and 1962, only 450 were taken.

Few species, even the extinct passenger pigeon, can match the recent spectacular decline of the Hue pike of Lake Erie. This was one of the important commercial species of the lake, and as recently as 1955 the catch amounted to 19.7 million pounds. But in the last seven years, only one blue pike has been reported from Erie. Under reasons for decline, the report notes, "The physical, chemical and biological environment in Lakes Erie and Ontario have deteriorated measurably in recent years, creating conditions that seem to be unfavorable for survival of eggs and young."

My own private concern is the shortnose sturgeon. Except for one Florida specimen, all recent captures of this small sturgeon have been in the Hudson River, and a new power project threatens him with extinction. The proposed power plant will also, in the opinion of many, decimate the river's striped bass and shad populations. If the Department of the Interior does not protect them, why bother to issue such a book as this?